Brown Says Lots, But What Will He Do?

February 1, 2011 - By Anthony Pignataro

FEB. 1, 2011

This year, they actually showed Gov. Jerry Brown’s State of the State address at the elegant Esquire Grill in downtown Sacramento with the sound on. They usually show the speech on the bar’s sole flat-screen, but not always with sound. But this year, restaurant management – and the dozen or so patrons who gathered in the bar at 5 p.m. – wanted to hear what new/old Governor Brown had to say.

The suits and business casual types sipped their wine and martinis quietly during the 13- or so minute speech (management tuned the TV to KCRA 3) chuckling occasionally during Brown’s repeated jokes but pretty much keeping silent, though his call to “tackle the budget head-on” earned a pretty loud laugh from one woman.

Brown was apparently tweaking the speech through yesterday afternoon. It was a bland speech certainly – full of fairly typical calls for honest budget crafting and leadership – but the like the governor himself possessed flashes of gorgeous, post-modern honesty. The most vivid occurred after Brown uttered some bland double-talk about making public employee pensions fair to employees and taxpayers, which caused an apparently bipartisan crowd in the Assembly to clap. Brown smiled, and pointed out how the line was so “ambiguous” that either political camp could interpret their way.

Brown even managed to work in an elliptical reference to the turmoil in Middle East in his plea for a vote on tax hikes in June. “When democratic ideals and calls for the right to vote are stirring the imagination of young people in Egypt and Tunisia and other parts of the world, we in California can’t say now is the time to block a vote of the people,” he said, according to the speech’s prepared text.

The use of Egypt here is ironic. There, Hosni Mubarak is seeing the likely end of his 30-year run as dictator, largely secured through the decades by his demonization – and shadow support – of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization. Mubarak secured his stranglehold over Egyptian society by annihilating all moderate, secular political groups, all the while allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to flourish underground. Whenever Westerners called for free and fair elections, Mubarak would cynically point to the reality that he was the only one preventing the Brotherhood from completely taking over, and talk of democratic reforms fizzled.

Brown has done something analogous with his proposed budget – not nearly as brutal as Mubarak, but every bit as manufactured. He set up a $25 billion budget that includes spending cuts and tax hikes and presented it to the voters, calling it the best of a bad situation. The only alternative should his tax hikes fail to pass popular muster, he darkly warned, would be “draconian” cuts to education spending.

Still, one public employee eating a hamburger at the bar would have none of it. The employee, who was not represented by a union, listened quietly to the speech.

“We started turning in our cell phones this week,” the employee said, referring to Brown’s recent, highly symbolic move to cut state costs by eliminating tens of thousands of public employee cell phones. “We’ve been going through this for years – furloughs, IOUs… we’re affected negatively by the budget in some way every year. Brown was throwing out a lot of catch-phrases, but until the fiscal year is over, I can’t really say much about it. Now if he wants to cut, there’s lots of things he can cut — they run the heater 24 hours a day in my building. It never goes off. Same thing with the lights, computers…”

The employee did not wish to be identified because she’s not authorized to talk to the media about budgetary matters. But the employee did appreciate Brown’s line about rejecting “politics as usual.”

“It’s frustrating,” she said between bites. “Of course, [Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger] said the same things. I don’t really think he said anything different from any politician I’ve heard over the years. None of this matters to me – what matters to me are the actions.”

By then the speech was over, and the employee and I spent a good amount of time wondering aloud during the post-speech commentary on KCRA if Kevin Eckery’s glasses were askew.

–Anthony Pignataro

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